The release of Vine, a social media app where users could post only six-second clips, set a standard that TikTok would follow up on in August of 2018. This standard quickly evolved to revolutionize modern media consumption: Instead of binge-watching long Netflix series, our teens are now scrolling through thousands of 30-second-long TikTok videos on their phones. This phenomenon was worsened during the 2020 pandemic as lockdown allowed for much more time to be spent online. Many children ended up flocking to social media to stay in contact with friends.
The power of TikTok was so well known that competing apps made their own spaces for short videos, such as Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts, both debuting in Sep. 2020, the height of the pandemic.
To understand TikTok’s rapid success and popularity, we must first understand the psychological mechanisms that make these less-than-a-minute-long videos so addictive. With shorter and shorter posts, it seems that not as much time is spent watching a video, leading the user to gain a mindset that “just one more video” will be enough, which is hauntingly familiar to addiction. TikTok’s format allowing a new video to appear instantly after swiping away undoubtedly makes this easier, and as a result the social media platform gets more and more views from easily exploitable individuals, most noticeably children. The Brown Undergraduate Journal of Public Health discovered that users may watch upwards of 180 videos per day and that almost a third of all users are teenagers. It is easy to see the link between addiction and these short videos.
In a morbid twist, a market has formed based on including two videos in one post, with one half being what the account wants viewers to notice, possibly their own content or a TV episode, and another half being used to keep viewers attention, usually gameplay of a video game or a relaxing crafting video. This doubling up of a video shows how truly broken the TikTok (and company) algorithm is that people feel the need to perform the equivalent of jingling keys to get people to pay attention to their videos.
With kids being pressured into using TikTok by peers and the short-form videos spread to other platforms (Shorts and Reels), a collective mental downturn in academic performance has been noticed with school children just reaching the age of 13. Teachers nationwide report that students cannot perform at the levels they could pre-pandemic.
Marquis Bryant, a seventh-grade teacher in Atlanta, Georgia, described his post-pandemic experience in the classroom and his students’ below-grade-level academic performance.
“I teach seventh grade—they are still performing on a fourth grade level. ‘Fourth grade’ is being nice, I still have kids performing on first, second, third grade levels. I could probably count on one hand how many kids are performing at their grade level.”
This phenomenon is also noticed by Teresa Newman, a music teacher in Texas.
“A lot of these kids would not use alphabet symbols. They would be making up symbols. If they knew how to write [the alphabet], they could not answer to me what letter would come after C in the alphabet. I am talking about fifty percent of the class.”
With the current way schools work, students are passed to the next grade level despite not learning the basics as discussed by the two above. This sets a frightening precedent for the nation; these children are supposed to be our next doctors, politicians, and scientists.
While this predicament has been caused by a variety of circumstances, there are two straightforward ways to combat this issue. The first is to absolutely impose harsher restrictions on screen time in general, and restrict even further the access that young children have on apps akin to this. While TikTok does have a system where it advises users to log off, it comes in the form of a video that can easily be swiped off, and the algorithm will just continue to provide videos afterward.
Additionally, age verification should be more heavily enforced. While the pandemic did force young children to be online to communicate, the world has opened back up. They do not need these apps as much as they used to. Companies need to better police age checks on their systems, and deliver harsher punishments for the act. Social media is well-known to be harmful to self-esteem and mental health. Why push these standards to the most impressionable members of our society?
As TikTok continues to explode in popularity, nationwide test scores continue to fall. It is time to take a stand against the exploitation of our youth.